Sunday, October 25, 2015

Subdued in Sultan Kudarat

Off the beaten track, Sultan Kudarat (perhaps with few exceptions like Tacurong City) is probably one of those places in Mindanao most people would rather skip in their itinerary for “security” reasons. I’ve been wanting to explore it myself a long time ago as I happen to have a few relatives in the provincial capital, Isulan. But the “fear” of entering a land “just a stone’s throw away” from a dreaded conflict zone kept hindering me from pushing through with my plan. 

Isulan is the seat of the provincial government

Monument of Sultan Kudarat in Isulan
Sultan Kudarat (or the SK in the acronym of SOCCSKSARGEN Region) happens to be near one of the most notorious war zones in the country that hugged the headlines not too long ago—remember the bloodbath that took place in the infamous town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao?

From what I’ve gathered, SK was named after a fierce leader who ruled a huge part of Mindanao in the 1600s. Sultan Kudarat a.k.a. Muhammad Dipatuan Kudarat (sometimes spelled as Qudarat or Corralat) headed the Sultanate of Maguindanao who successfully opposed the Spanish colonizers who attempted to conquer his land and hindered the Christianization of the island.

Kudarat (1581–1671) was a direct descendant of Shariff Kabungsuwan, a Malay-Arab missionary who brought Islam to the Philippines between the 13th and 14th century. It was many centuries later, during the reign of former President Ferdinand Marcos, that the sultan was declared a national hero. Eventually, the late dictator issued a proclamation that created the province, naming it after the revered Muslim leader. 

Panoramic view of Sultan Kudarat's imposing capitol building

Sultan Kudarat is made up of eleven (11) towns and one city, Tacurong, that is. Three of the municipalities (Kalamansig, Lebak, and Palimbang) are found along the coast while the rest are landlocked. Tacurong is the smallest in terms of land area, but it is the most urbanized, and is considered as SK’s commercial center. Other growth centers are the towns of Lebak and Isulan, the latter being the provincial capital.

Over 700,000 people (based on the last censal count) populate the province’s land area of about 5,299 sq. km. Ilonggos constitute the majority of SK’s Christian population. Their native languages include Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a, which also happen to be Sultan Kudarat’s dominant language.

Tacurong City, the provincial capital

Downtown Tacurong

As fate would have it, I suddenly found myself journeying to SK, not just once but twice this year! On both occasions, I was subdued all the time I was there—so subdued to the point of being sub-rosa! Being a newcomer, I always try to maintain a low profile whenever I tread certain places perceived (sometimes, wrongly!) to be “hotspots of conflict”, particularly those in Central Mindanao like Sultan Kudarat.
Tacurong City's popular Rotonda

During my first trip there, I passed through what most travelers would consider the road less travelled—a portion of Maguindanao, particularly the towns of Datu Paglas and Buluan. To my pleasant surprise, however, the sojourn to SK turned out to be a pleasant one. And for the record, SK, as I’ve experience it, is one of the more peaceful provinces in the island.

For my second trip to SK, however, I opted to take the other route, the longer but “safer” road, they say, driving along the smooth stretches that connect General Santos (GenSan) City, the towns of South Cotabato (Polomolok, Tupi and Tantangan) as well as its capital, Koronadal City to Sultan Kudarat. For the first sojourn, I stayed in Tacurong City. Meanwhile, GenSan was my home away from home during my second visit.

Short as they were, the sojourns to Sultan Kudarat gave me the chance to explore a few of its interesting sites. In Tacurong, I was able to visit the secluded Baras Bird Sanctuary where thousands of birds are said to hibernate during their mating season (sometime in May). Unfortunately, I only managed to see some of the fowls when I came. But they were so elusive I couldn’t take snaps at them even from a distance.

The sanctuary's iconic sculpture


The road to Baras

According to Mary Ann, one of the sanctuary’s caretakers, a few egrets were seen there in the 1990s. Now, it’s a haven to about 20,000 different species of birds! The visiting flock includes doves, hawks, kingfishers, sparrows, herons, egrets, bulbuls, robins, fantails, cuckoos, monarchs and ibises. No one knows why they opt to go there, but isn’t it amazing that these migratory creatures chose Badas as their “halfway home” in Mindanao? 

Isulan, on the other hand, offers visitors a glimpse of the grandeur of Arabic-inspired architecture through the Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol. The imposing five-storey structure, with its magnificent dome (that used to be painted in gold), is said to be one of the most attractive government buildings not only in the country but in Asia, too. I took a tour around the building and saw for myself how grand it is.
Whew, everything inside the capitol looked expensive and luxurious! Huge chandeliers, fine window drapes, intricately designed chairs—geez, the massive structure was oozing with opulence! Of course, a capitol building isn’t complete without a monument to the greatest leader of the Maguindanaoans—Sultan Kudarat. 

One of the huge edifices inside the massive government complex

Aside from the Muslim leader, there’s another popular local figure that caught my attention—Don Juan Garcia—whose bust adorns the main lobby of the capitol. Garcia, who was instrumental for the progress of Isulan, is also known as the prime mover of the development of the palm oil industry not only in Sultan Kudarat but the whole of South Central Mindanao Region. 

A palm plantation on the way to the bird sanctuary

From what I’ve heard, there are a number of waterfalls and caves found in some of the inland municipalities towns like Bagumbayan (the largest town), Columbio and Senator Ninoy Aquino. The coastal towns like Kalamansig and Palimbang also offer pristine white-sand beaches for beach bums. A hot and cold spring in Esperanza and a hot sulfur spring in Isulan are also waiting to be explored. Unfortunately, I didn’t dare tread into those interesting sites. Perhaps at some future time when I’ve already found a trusted guide who can lead me to them.   

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the alluring province. Geez, I couldn’t get enough of what I’ve seen so far! Here’s wishing that before my hands shake, before my legs break and before my eyes close, I’d be able to drive my way back into Sultan Kudarat to explore it some more. :-D

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